TV station attack: Venezuela's "comprehensive assault" on free speech?

Pro-Chavez activists threw tear gas at the headquarters of regime critic Globovision. Human Rights Watch alleges growing restrictions on free expression.

MEXICO CITY – The battle between supporters and critics of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez spilled over onto the grounds of a popular Venezuelan TV station on Monday when pro-Chávez activists invaded the main offices of Globovision and set off tear gas.

The private station, which has often been critical of Chávez, carried footage from the incident (some of the incident can be seen here). The attack was criticized by groups worldwide, including the Committee to Protect Journalists. The event at Globovision occurred after the government shut down 34 radio stations over the weekend, citing regulatory issues. Critics said the closures were to silence critical reporting. Globovision itself has been subject of several investigations.

Last week, Venezuela’s attorney general introduced draft legislation on “media crimes” that could, among other things, mean prison sentences for up to four years for those who provide “false” information that harms the interests of the state.

“What we are witnessing is the most comprehensive assault on free speech in Venezuela since Chávez came to power,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “With the exception of Cuba, Venezuela is the only country in the region that shows such flagrant disregard for universal standards of freedom of expression.”

Nevertheless, the government condemned the attack. “In the name of the Bolivarian government, we firstly want to condemn this attack energetically and reject this type of violent action against Globovision,” Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami said on the state television channel VTV. “We don’t accept that violence be the instrument to solve our differences.”

The Chávez administration has given more space to community radio stations and trained local communities to be empowered through technology, as the Monitor reported earlier this year. But many worry that Chávez's true objective is to promote his socialist revolution and stifle dissent.

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